Among describes unspecified and collective relationships. Between expresses one-on-one relationships for several distinct things.
What is the difference between among and between?
Among and between are English prepositions that connect the relationships between one or many sentence objects. The difference is that among references undefined, collective relationships, while between describes one-to-one relationships for multiple, distinct things.
- “You are a king among men.”
- “I wish to live among the trees.”
- “The hammock hangs between two trees.”
- “It’s not about the destination, but the journeys in between.”
As shown above, among references crowds or masses collectively, while between connects individual items.
Isn’t there a grammar rule for between vs. among?
Some people insist that between should only reference two distinct objects, and this is commonly observed in phrases like “between you and me” or “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” But contrary to popular belief, there’s no Modern English maxim that forbids us to use “between” for two or more objects.
As pointed out by The American Heritage Dictionary, the misconception is likely a product of etymology, where the -tween in “between” derives from the same Indo-European root that produced duo, two, or twain.
But according to William Safire in The New York Times Magazine, British writer Samuel Johnson enforced the idea that between best describes two items within A Dictionary of the English Language in 1788.
“Between is properly used of two and among of more,” writes Johnson. “But perhaps, this accuracy is not always preserved.”
Notable wordsmiths like Noah Webster, Sir James A. H. Murray, and Henry W. Fowler later took issue with Johnson’s stance, spawning years of debate that essentially lean on an outdated opinion versus the realities of common usage.
“Here we have a rule that doesn’t really rule,” Safire succinctly concludes. “It hangs on with no real authority, but is useful enough in most cases to satisfy a general craving for direction.”
But if the NYT cannot convince you, perhaps Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) can. According to the grammatical source, our misconceptions around between and among are only helpful for using the verb ‘divide’ (e.g., “divide between two, divide among many”) (Garner 111).
GMEU also adds that “good writers commonly use between with more than two elements, in American English and British English alike.” However, if you’re describing several one-on-one relationships in a collective manner, “among is the better word” (111).
What does between mean?
The word between is a preposition and adverb that references the relationship between two or more distinct objects. When followed by a noun, “between” is a preposition. When there is not a noun after “between,” it’s an adverb.
Between as a preposition
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, we can use “between” as a preposition to convey:
- A shared relationship or commonality. For example,
- “We can eat a lot between the two of us.”
- “The inheritance is shared between five children.”
2. The time, spatial area, or interval separating objects.
- “I parked between those new Teslas.”
- “The package should arrive between our afternoon meetings.”
3. An object’s intermediate relation to something else.
- “The actor should be somewhere between 29 and 31 years old.”
- “I worked somewhere between six and seven hours.”
4. The connecting distance, direction, or transfer from one noun to another.
- “He owns ten houses between Florida and New York.”
- “There’s an understanding between the actors.”
- “She drives between movie sets.”
5. A distinction, separation, comparison, or preference of one thing from another.
- “That’s the difference between you and me.”
- “There’s a fine line between borrowing and theft.”
- “You can’t choose between Grammarly and The Chicago Manual of Style.”
- “Between the two candies, I choose Snickers.” T
6. The confidence or trust from one person to one or many people.
- “Let’s keep this conversation between you and me.”
- “Between us, I don’t like candy either.”
7. The combined effect of many distinct variables.
- “Between work, class, and volunteering, he doesn’t have the time for parties.”
- “I can’t attend the event, between parenting and all.”
Between as an adverb
As an adverb, “between” conveys an “intermediate space or interval.” For example,
- “The urge to create has become few and far between.”
- “You’ll find a few Teslas and a Saab between.”
From, out of.
What does among mean?
Among is a preposition that expresses relationships for collective and nonspecific things. In practice, the preposition conveys how something is:
- Surrounded by or in the midst of things. For example,
- “There is an imposter among us.”
- “The frisbee is lost among the trash.”
2. Associated with or in the company of something.
- “The cat wants to run among feral creatures.”
- “She was among those arrested.”
3. By or through the masses.
- “Hysteria broke out among voters.”
- “The destitute are among those who suffer the most.”
4. A part of a number or class of something.
- “He was a king among men.”
- “The student was among the best the school ever had.”
5. Related through shares.
- “The bread was divided among the children.”
- “Free t-shirts were distributed among the crowd.”
6. Involved with many in joint or reciprocal actions.
- “The boys were arguing among themselves.”
- “Feel free to share among yourselves.”
Amid, amidst, encompassed by, in the thick of, midst, through.
From, out of.
Where do between and among come from?
The words “between” and “among” each trace back to Old English:
- Among = āmang: ā (‘in’) + gemang (‘assemblage, mingling, throng’)
- Between = betwēonum: be (‘by’) + tweonum, tweon (‘two each’)
As we can see, the word “among” implied the reference of crowds or surrounding groups. “Between,” on the other hand, arrived later to reference a specific number of things or people.
When to use between vs. among in a sentence?
The easiest way to use “among” and “between” correctly every time is to stick to two general rules.
#1. Use “between” to express one-on-one relationships for two or more distinct things.
- “You know the rule: keep the car between the white line marking the shoulder and the double yellow centerline.” — The New Yorker
- “It’s normal (and even desirable) that the structure of your work will change drastically between drafts.” — The New York Times
- “Conceived in the realm of ballet, his fall collection freeze-framed a dancer’s wardrobe between the stages of rehearsal and performance.” — Vogue
#2. Use “among” to reference a collective group of things.
- “Among other big districts, Los Angeles-area schools remain closed until staff members are vaccinated.” — AP News
- “5 former Postal Service employees among 11 charged with stealing credit cards from mail.” — The Chicago Sun-Times
- “NMSU engineering professors rank among top 2% in their research fields worldwide.” — Las Cruces Sun-News
FAQ: related to between vs. among
Is between the same as betwixt?
The English word “betwixt” is synonymous with “between,” except it only references ‘two people or things’ (preposition) or ‘the space in between two people or things’ (adverb). For example,
- “Set the crown betwixt the bible and sword.”
- “If she dislikes the two, why would she sit betwixt?”
While “between” and “betwixt” are often interchangeable, modern grammar considers “betwixt” to be archaic and pretentious. As far as we can tell, the term survives through the informal phrase “betwixt and between,” meaning ‘not one or the other.’
What’s the difference between among vs. amongst?
As we’ve discussed previously on The Word Counter, the word amongst is synonymous with among, although it is archaic and uncommon in American English. Modern use of amongst is generally confined to British English.
Additional reading for between vs. among
To learn more about commonly confused words, check out The Word Counter’s lessons on topics, such as:
Even native English speakers struggle with confusing words like between and among. See if you’re ahead of the curve with a quick multiple-choice quiz.
- ___________ references the relationship between two or more distinct items.
d. B and C
- ___________ references the relationship between one distinct thing and an unspecified number of things (as part of a group).
d. All of the above
- The word “between” is a ___________ when followed by a noun.
d. A and C
- The use of between is restricted to __________.
a. Two distinct items
b. Three distinct items
c. One distinct item and a group of unspecified things.
d. There is no restriction for between.
- Which of the following word sets have different meanings?
a. Between vs. betwixt
b. Among vs. amongst
c. Between vs. among
d. All of the above
- True or false: “Amongst” is the superlative form of “among.”
- “Between.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2021.
- “Between.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- “Betwixt.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- Christian Madsen, A. “Erdem: Fall 2021 Ready-to-Wear.” Vogue, Vogue.com, 23 Feb 2021.
- Garner, B. “Between and among.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 111.
- Guinness, H. “How to Edit Your Own Writing.” The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 7 Apr 2020.
- Harper, D. “Between (prep., adv.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline.com, 2021.
- Ritter, K. “Vegas-area schools latest to reopen among large US districts.” AP News, APNews.com, 27 Feb 2021.
- Safire, William. “Betwixt Among And Between.” The New York Times Magazine, NYTimes.com, 12 Sep 1993.
- Seabrook, J. “The Next Word.” The New Yorker, NewYorker.com, 14 Oct 2019.